Buzkashi: The National Game of Afghanistan

Exclusively Afghan, Buzkashi as it is played today, reflects the boldness and fierce competitive spirit of the Afghan people. The origins of the game, however, are obscure. What is certain is the great equestrian tradition out of which Buzkashi developed and without which it should fade, goes back as far as the time of Alexander the Great.

Expert horsemen, nomads of northern Afghanistan fought Alexander's triumphant army to a standstill. When the ancient Greeks first saw these formidable and accomplished horsemen of Central Asia, they believed the legend of the centaur (half horse, half man) had materialized. For any witness of modern Buzkashi, this reaction is easily understood. Before moving on to India, Alexander replenished his cavalry with this sturdy breed of horse.

Many people associate Buzkashi with the infamous Genghis Khan. The Mongol horsemen were adept at advancing swiftly on enemy campsites and, without dismounting, swooping up sheep, goats, and other pillage at a full gallop. One theory is that in retaliation, the inhabitants of northern Afghanistan established a mounted defense against the raids and this practice might be the direct forbearer of today's Buzkashi. As speculative as this story on the origins of Buzkashi might be, it seems a plausible re-enactment of the campaigns of the great Mongol and his Golden Horde in Asia Minor.

THE CHAPANDAZ AND HIS HORSE:

Buzkashi produces many of Afghanistan's sports heroes. "Chapandaz" (master players) are legendary figures: Joseph Kessel romanticized them to an international level in his novel, "The Horseman." Buzkashi demands the highest degree of horsemanship, courage, physical strength and competitive spirit from its participants.

Experience is vital, and many enthusiasts of the game maintain the better chapandaz must be at least forty years old.

Aspiring neophytes begin playing Buzkashi as boys. Years of arduous practice are required before one can wear the vaunted Buzkashi cap. During a game these future chapandaz ride the fringes of the main action, observing all they can. Eventually, the most skilled will participate in the major contests, such as those played on the Daht-i-Shadian (Desert of Happiness) near Mazar-e-Sharif and in the Kunduz Stadium.

But the Chapandaz is only half of Buzkashi. In fact, his mount is the more vital element. An Afghan saying that "better a poor rider on a good horse than a good rider on a poor horse" is heard at every Buzkashi contest.

As it has for centuries, northern Afghanistan breeds horses of exceptional endurance and speed, both crucial to Buzkashi. Two types of breeds are used for today's game. One called Tartar comes primarily from the provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz, Samanga, Takhar and Badakhaahan. Small, but very swift and sturdy, these are the horses that so impressed Alexander. Marco Polo, one of the first "tourists" to visit Central Asia, had nothing but praise for the horses of this area.

The second breed of horse used for Buzkashi is Habash, the great stallion of the Turkestan plains. This vast expanse of arid steppes and low foothills, stretching from Mazar-e-Sharif to Maimana, nurtures this breed. In the spring, large herds of these horses can be seen roaming freely over the grass-covered slopes of northern Afghanistan.

In addition to these two breeds, there are the Borta, Waziri, Arabi and the Tazi types, some of which find themselves a place in the games of Buzkashi. The Waziri horses are most often used for tent pegging.

Horses are also classified for the purpose of Buzkashi from the stand point of color. There are nine types of colors commonly referred to by chapandaz and sayez (trainer); these are: Jerand (red), Toroq (dark red), Mushki (black), Kahar (yellowish), Gul Badam (dotted), Ablaq (Mixed) and Kabood (gray).

But not every horse enters Buzkashi a novice. Several years of patient instruction are needed to prepare a mount for the big matches, and only stallions are used. A chapandaz or mehtar or sayez teaches a prospective horse never to trample a fallen rider and to swerve away from collisions without a gesture from their rider. To enable the chapandaz to pick the calf from the ground, the best Buzkashi horses will push and ram their opponents, forcing their way into the middle of the fray around the starting circle. But when a rider makes the perilous reach down to grab the calf, his horse will stand perfectly still, waiting for the real action to begin.

Buzkashi is traditionally played during the winter and early spring. During the late spring and summer, when the weather is too hot for play, the horses are allowed to graze quietly. Their diet consists of barley twice a day, melons in season, and occasionally a meal of barley enriched with raw eggs and butter.

A family will sometimes spend half of its savings to purchase a Buzkashi horse. The more wealthy often sponsor a team, providing salaries for the chapandaz and offering cash bonuses for goals scored in a match. In addition, many chapandaz own their mounts. Good Buzkashi horses play for as long as twenty years.

RULES OF BUZKASHI:

The Afghan Olympic Federation has established official rules for Buzkashi. They are strictly observed, however, only for contests in Kabul. In the northern provinces, Buzkashi is seldom played according to "official" rules. There is no limitation on the size or type of the field and as many as 500 riders may participate in one game. Possible variations on the game include a free-for all in which the individual riders comprise one-man teams, and "darya-yi-Buzkashi" which is played in the middle of a river or stream.

There are, however, two rules which apply to every Buzkashi contest. A rider may never hit an opponent intentionally with his whip and he may never deliberately knock an opponent off his horse.

Buzkashi literally means "goat dragging," but a decapitated calf is now used because it is stronger and heavier and therefore able to withstand the punishment of the game. The carcass is soaked in water overnight to toughen the hide.

The Olympic Federation's rules require the field to be a square, the outer boundary of which is 400 meters on a side and the inner boundary, or warning line, 350 meters on a side. Two circles are drawn on the playing field.

The game begins at the starting circle with the penalty lines (the inner boundary) used only when the mounted referee has called a foul.

The object of the game is to drop, the calf into the scoring circle. Two points are scored for each goal. At one end of the field stands a line of flags marking the minimum distance the calf must be carried before returning to the scoring circle to make a goal. A team crossing the line of flags receives one point.

For championship Buzkashi in Kabul, teams are limited to ten riders each. Five players take the field during the first 45 minutes of play; the other five compete during the second period. A field master presides over the match and has the authority to prolong the game and grant permission for a change of riders or horses. The halftime break lasts for 15 minutes.

At the referee's whistle, the teams approach the headless carcass which has been placed in the starting circle. Snorting and rearing back wildly, the horses try to gain an advantageous position so their player can grab the calf. The chapandaz wear high leather boots to protect themselves from the flying hooves. The boots have extremely high heels which will be locked into the stirrups to prevent falls.

To the observer, the game appears to be absolute chaos. The simplicity of the rules is lost in the furious action of the contest, but the highpoint in the game for comes when one chapandaz has bested the rest and gallops to the scoring circle alone.